International best-selling author Nicholas Sparks sat down with us recently to talk about Dear John, the latest film to be adapted from one of his novels. Directed by Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström, Dear John tells the story of John Tyree (Channing Tatum), a young soldier home on leave, and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), the idealistic college student he falls in love with during her spring vacation. The film also stars Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins.
Sparks, who currently resides in North Carolina with his wife and five children, has published fifteen novels of which six have been turned into films. They include The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Last Song, Dear John, and Nights in Rodanthe. Sparks also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel, The Last Song. The film rights for his novel, The Lucky One, have been sold to Warner Bros. with Douglas McGrath attached to direct. Sparks has also sold screenplay adaptations of True Believer and At First Sight.
Nicholas Sparks talked to us about walking the fine line between drama and melodrama, how pleased he is with the way Lasse Hallström and the cast captured his vision on film, and what a love story like Dear John has in common with the Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca. Here’s what he had to say:
Question: Is this your fourth film adaptation or are there more?
Nicholas Sparks: Sixth. Yeah, time flies. Actually I think it’ll be the fifth. I did “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” and “Nights in Rodanthe,” and then this one, of course, comes out next month. “The Last Song” finished filming. That comes out in April. And I think they start filming “The Lucky One” in May. That was the novel last year.
So why do you bother to write the novel? Why not just jump ahead to the screenplay?
NS: Look, I’m a novelist at heart. How’s that? And that’s how I make my living, is I write novels. I’ve had a very good run of good fortune with the studios, but I’m a novelist. That could end at any time. Look, I’ve written novels that I was sure would sell to Hollywood and they would make big movies. Nope, they’re still languishing out in Neverland. But, like I’ve said, I’ve had a fairly good run.
Has that good run affected how you write your novels — not with the expectation but perhaps with the anticipation that it might be one that somebody is going to want to adapt?
NS: No, No, in the end, for me, the sole single goal is to write the best novel that I can. Whether or not it gets made or gets purchased, that has very little to do with it. Even, for instance, when I did “The Last Song,” and I wrote the screenplay for that, for me, it was primarily in the conception and all of this going to be a novel and then I wrote the screenplay and then they made that too. But I’m a novelist. I’m not a screenwriter, not an actor. I live in North Carolina far away from here.
Have the movies impacted the way you write novels?
NS: No, not really. They don’t impact necessarily what I write, but they do impact what I don’t write. What I try to do with any of my stories, any of my novels, is make them feel very original. In this world that we live in, you have originality in literature but you also have television. You’ve got movies. Right? I’ll cut to the chase and make it very simple. I write love stories. I could never write a love story based on or that was set on the Titanic. That was never a novel. It would be original as a novel but it was a very big film. So, if I see an idea that’s been done in film, I try to avoid that, because again, I’m just doing my best to be original.
Is doing a love story on film perhaps one of the hardest things because you’re always walking that fine line?
NS: Drama versus melodrama. It’s one of the hardest things you can do. Sure.
What are some love stories that you think they’ve gotten right?
NS: Well, of course, I think they did a wonderful job with “Dear John” and “Dear John” was largely modeled on probably the best film love story ever made: “Casablanca.” If you remember that film, you’ve got Rick played by Humphrey Bogart. He’s got the tickets that will get [them out of the country]. The woman shows up with her husband and he’s in the Czechoslovakian Resistance or something along those lines. He’s got to get out or the Nazi’s are going to kill him. If Rick gives them the tickets, he doesn’t get the girl. If he saves her husband’s life, he doesn’t get the girl. This is essentially that story. It’s just a modern, updated twist on that story and, of course, with its own distinct elements.
You said you don’t necessarily write with a film adaptation in mind, but would you argue that some stories should be read and not necessarily seen?
NS: Yeah, I would say that. I would say that there are certain of my novels that I think would be very tough to adapt to film and that will probably never be adapted for that reason.
One thing that characterizes your work is you don’t shy away from sentiment, which can often be perceived as sentimentality and is sometimes poison where films are concerned.
NS: It’s poison as far as literature is concerned as well. There is a fine line I have to walk throughout the writing process in a novel and it’s the same line that Lasse had to walk. It is this line between drama and melodrama, and it is this line between evoking genuine emotional power and being manipulative. I would agree, that’s just about the hardest thing you can do because you are talking about stories that are very internally conflict driven and it’s real easy to go overboard. They did not do that in this film and that’s one of the reasons why I think people are really responding to the film.
Do you think melodrama is another genre or is it a lesser genre? For example, William Wyler and Douglas Sirk both made wonderful movies that were often melodrama.
NS: Sure, sure. That is a distinct genre from what I do. It’s different than what I do. I write drama.
How do you approach writing a novel? Do you make notes about your ideas and pivotal events for your story and then say, “Okay, I’m going to write 9-5 Monday through Friday”?
NS: Oh, wouldn’t that be nice. No, it doesn’t work like that for me. I am very clear on the story before I sit down to write. I know the beginning. I know the end. I know the major elements. I know the turning points here and there within the novels. And that, for me, is usually enough to get me started. Then a typical week would probably be I’ll write 4 days out of 7 and let’s say from 9:30 til 3:30 with a break, a half hour for lunch, or something like that. When I sit down to write, my goal is to write 2,000 words and that’s what I try to do.
Do you hate happy endings?
NS: I’ve had happy endings. (Laughs) Happy endings are easy. Tragic endings are easy. What you have here with “Dear John” is a bittersweet ending. This is just about the hardest thing to pull off. It’s “You can’t hate him. You can’t hate her. They just can’t be together.” (Laughs)
It’s refreshing to see a love story that’s more realistic.
NS: I was very pleased. I thought Channing did a great job. I thought Amanda did a great job and I was very pleased with the way Lasse handled the script. The screenwriter did a very good job too in adapting it. It’s not, of course, exactly the same as the novel, but the changes that they made I think really improved it as a film. I’m okay with that. Films are very different mediums than literature. One’s a story told in words. One’s a story told in pictures. Some things work better in one. Other things work better in the other. And as long as you capture the spirit of the characters and the spirit and the intent of the film and the basic journey, I’m pretty okay with that.
NS: I have no say in anything big. (Laughs) I have no say in anything interesting. I got nothing for you.
Do you want more control?
NS: No. I don’t. I’m very happy. I’m a novelist and I live in a small town in the South. I’ve got 5 children. That’s my life and that’s what I do.
Do you even go to set or do you just go “I sold it. Move onto the next book”?
NS: I went to the set for a day and that was it.
When John Irving talked about “Cider House Rules,” he said, “You know, if you take the check and allow them to adapt your book, you have no business complaining what they do with it because once you’ve cashed the check…”
NS: Of course. That’s exactly right. You know, I’m in a fortunate position compared to a lot of writers that I can pick and choose who I work with for the most part, because there might be 2 or 3 producers, for instance, that are interested in a project of mine. I pick people that I like and I pick people that I think understand what I’m trying to do. Not everybody does. Not everybody does – whether it’s a director or a producer or whatever. But, like I said, I’ve been very fortunate.
Another risk I think you take is putting situations in that people can directly identify with, such as using autism and Asperger’s syndrome as elements of the story. A lot of people are dealing with it in their real lives which could take them out of your story. Is that okay with you?
NS: Of course. My second son has some of these issues. I don’t know what his exact diagnosis is. It’s a big long spectrum. He’s somewhere in that spectrum and once you’re in the spectrum, you can move up or down or get better or worse and all of these things. For me, that was one of the great elements in that film. I thought that the relationship between John and his father was important to the film, and I thought that the way Richard Jenkins and Channing did it, they did a good job. There’s some very moving moments between those two – whether he’s getting on the bus and his dad doesn’t even know how to hug him to he’s in the hospital and he says, “Dad, I wrote you a letter. You know, read it later, Dad. Read it later. But Dad, just lock into I have to do something now.” So Channing reads it to Richard. It’s one of the great scenes.
It’s fascinating to see the emotion coming out in you reliving something that you created.
NS: Yeah, yeah. It’s nice. They did a very good job.
You obviously wrote with a vision. Is it difficult once you sell your screenplay to then see that this director has another vision of something you’ve written?
NS: Sometimes. Sometimes I suppose that would be an issue. I tend to have adaptations that are fairly close, unlike let’s say John Irving. You read a John Irving book. It’s 900 pages and there’s what, 15, 20 characters sometimes? Or, at least let’s say 6 to 8. I write 2 to 3 character stories and they’re smaller, so you can capture most of what I have in my novel in the course of a film.
You’ve talked about how you first met your wife at the beach.
Are certain elements in the book based on your true experiences and now they’re in the movie?
NS: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I met my wife on Spring break when I was in college. I was at the University of Notre Dame. She was at the University of New Hampshire. I bumped into her in Florida and told her the next day that I was going to marry her and 20 years later here we are.
What did she say to that?
NS: She laughed at me. (Laughs) I’m on Spring break, right? She’s a great person and she’s my best friend. So, if I write a story in which let’s say these two characters are together for a couple of weeks, and some people say oh, you can’t have real depth in that. I’m like, well, you know what? It’s been a long time for me. I met my wife and I was only with her for 4 or 5 days before we both went back to our respective universities.
But real life doesn’t always work in movies?
NS: Not always. I think it depends on the story and then it depends on the director and how the director handles these elements. Sometimes real life works well. But again, you’re walking that line between drama and melodrama, evoking genuine emotion or being manipulative and it’s a tough line to walk.
John Tyree chooses to go fight the wrong war against the wrong enemy over this girl. What does this say about this character?
NS: I think I can respond to that. Of course, I wrote the novel in 2004 or something like that so it was a while ago. And also, people forget the feelings in this country in the weeks following 9/11. All the flags are flying out front. People are enlisting in droves. All of this whether or not it was the right war at that time. That’s what happened to my cousin. The exact same thing that happened to John happened to my cousin. He was with the Strykers. He was out of Fort Hood in Washington. His name is Todd Vance. In fact, if you read Colby Buzzle’s “My War,” Todd Vance is one of the…that’s his sergeant, my cousin Todd. So there he is. He’s in the Army for 4 years, ready to get out, looking forward to it. He’s getting out in October. 9/11 hits and he says, “I’m a sergeant. These are my friends. I have to watch out for them. They’re gonna go. I gotta go. I gotta take care of them.” It was just that’s what you do. And so, to me, there’s very little anything to do with politics about that or whether or not it was the right war, the right place, the right time. It was simply a reflection of the reality after 9/11.
Spiritual themes are another thing you haven’t shied away from. Has your editor ever said, “Okay. Can you tone down the Christianity?”
NS: No, my editor never tones anything down and I certainly don’t shy away from a spiritual element within the novels or anything like that. However, I don’t do it for the sake of doing it. I’m not doing it to proselytize. If it’s important to the story, then I put it in. In this case, it was important for Savannah, because you look at all the choices she ends up making. This is a good young lady. Right? I mean, she’s just a good young lady. So the last song has a spiritual element. “A Walk to Remember.” Those are probably my heaviest. But if you look at something like “The Lucky One,” which is again going to be a film, there’s not because it wasn’t central to that particular character or the story.
How do you find your ideas and come up with new stories?
NS: I’ve got a tree in the backyard. (Laughs) I just run out and pick a new idea. [They come from ] a lot of different places and really good original ideas are very hard to come up with. Good ideas – easy. Really good, original ideas – it can take months. The novel that I’m working on now that’ll be out in the Fall called “Saying Goodbye” probably took me 4 months simply to think up the idea.
Are you just sitting in the chair or walking around?
NS: Yeah. And I’m muttering under my breath, then moping and whining and hating my life and watching mentally my career go up in flames because I can’t get a new idea and I’m like “Well…” because it’s not something that you can bottle up. You can go to all the schools in the world. If I knew where creativity came from, I’d probably be a lot less stressed about coming up with new stories.
You’ve got to have a rollicking comedy in you with nobody having any disease and nobody dying?
NS: Yeah, maybe. Maybe. (Laughs)
Dear John opens in theaters on February 5th.